Back Issues
Carnegie Museums

Visitors to Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas will decide for themselves if the mystery of Machu Picchu has finally been solved.




















Like the Romans, the Incas turned a small, warlike tribe into the center of a great empire.



Photo: Michael Lawton 

Machu Picchu
Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas

In 1911, the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu was discovered by chance by mountaineer and archaeologist Hiram Bingham. He was in Peru with three companions to climb the highest mountains of the region, and he had been impressed by Inca ruins two years earlier when he visited South America on a Yale University tour of ceremonial sites. A wealthy explorer, he was fascinated by the idea of Peru’s legendary “lost city,” which had disappeared with the Inca civilization in the 1500s.

Hiram Bingham (1875-1956) came upon Machu Picchu when he was exploring the valley of the Urubamba River, about a three-day hike from Cuzco, the ancient capitol city of the Incas. By chance in 1911, the Peruvian government had blasted a rough trail through the river gorges to make a new road that would aid in transporting products such as cocoa, sugar, and rubber from the Amazon. Bingham was one of the first to use the road in his search for lost Inca sites. As a climber, he decided at one point to scramble up through the dense rainforest around him with a companion and an Indian guide, and he unexpectedly arrived at mid-day at a high Indian farm 1,000 feet above the plunging river. Two native farmers working the farm were surprised to see them, and offered them water and sweet potatoes. They also told Bingham that there were ancient ruins, in the common expression, “a little further on.”

Explorer Hiram Bingham during a 1912 expedition to Machu Picchu.
Credit: Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University

With a 10-year old Indian boy as a guide, Bingham kept on climbing. He suddenly came upon “a magnificent flight of stone agricultural terraces, rising 1,000 feet up the mountainside.” He climbed upwards for an hour more and found himself finally in a deep forest above these terraces, surrounded by stone buildings, including a temple made of granite blocks that had been cut with the amazing precision of Inca stonemasons. Bingham wrote:“ Surprise followed surprise in bewildering succession. I climbed a marvelous stairway of granite blocks, walked along a pampa where the Indians had a small vegetable garden, and came to a clearing in which were two of the finest structures I had ever seen. Not only were there blocks of beautifully grained white granite, the ashlars [squared blocks] were of Cyclopean size, some 10 feet in length and higher than a man. I was spellbound.”

There in the cloud forest of the Andes mountains, 2,000 feet above the roaring river below, Bingham believed he had stumbled upon the fabled “Lost City of the Incas.” But was it really that?

The Riddle of Macu Picchu
Machu Picchu was an astonishing 20th century archaeological discovery, but it was also a puzzle. Modern researchers such as Yale’s Richard L. Burger and Lucy Salazar (co-curators of Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas) believe that Machu Picchu was a royal retreat or country palace, used by the great Inca Emperor Pachacuti and his guests as a place to relax, feast, hunt, and engage in ritual activities related to his divine kingship. In modern American terms, Burger calls it a “Camp David” for the Inca Sun God and his followers.

For decades, beginning with Bingham’s theories, the mystery of the site has provoked various interpretations: that it was an ancient military stronghold, or that it was the last holdout of the Incas against the invading Conquistadors in the 16th century. Some believed it was an isolated religious sanctuary where nuns and priests worshipped the sun.

Burger and Salazar argue that it was active for less than 100 years, and that it was a summer palace for the Inca elite from Cuzco, the empire's capital. Situated magnificently in the Peruvian Andes, it was populated seasonally by the ruling Inca and several hundred craftsmen and other servants necessary to carry on the affairs of estate and government.

Many of the buildings in Mach Picchu show
signs of having religious or spiritual significance.

Salazar believes the royal estate was built by the first imperial ruler of the Inca Empire, Pachacuti, about 1460. Machu Picchu is so close to the capitol of the empire, Cuzco, that Burger says, "Pachacuti may well have picked out the site simply because it was so beautiful. The Inca were connoisseurs of highland panoramas, and they had an aesthetic about stonework and mountain views."
“ Inca” as a word stands for the ruling elite and their ethnic group. Thus, the Incas, who ruled an empire of many different clans and ethnic groups, would periodically make their presence known by taking up residence at a series of royal estates. At Machu Picchu the population may have been varied in reflecting the complexity of the Inca empire. The place was more like a melting pot of the Inca empire, more like New York than an isolated rural village in Peru. People living there could have come from all over the empire, from different ethnic groups, and would have spoken different languages. But their common purpose for coming together would have been to serve their emperor, the divine King.

Archaeologists now believe that many of the buildings at Machu Picchu show signs of having had religious and spiritual significance. There are shrines, royal houses, and a cloister for women. In Inca tradition, there were women whose sacred task was serving the divine King, and who engaged in weaving and cooking for the sun. One series of erect monolithic stones can be interpreted as resting places where the sun seemed to pause in its course across the sky. Another building could have been the place where the Inca ruler entered to speak directly to the sun, and from which he returned to tell the people what the sun had said.

Inca religion was full of natural shrines with magical importance, places where the sun and the stars could be worshipped, and where the ancestors were venerated. Machu Picchu’s dramatic isolation high on a granite spine of rock suggests spiritual meaning. The Inca were astronomers, and the divine King himself wore a tunic with rows of complex geometric motifs, suggesting the forces of energy that interacted between heaven and earth.

Experiencing the Exhibition
Inca bottle found at Machu Picchu.
Images courtesy of Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University

When Hiram Bingham supervised the Yale-Peruvian excavations at the site from 1911 to 1915, he excavated hundreds of objects that tell the story of everyday Inca life, and he took almost 1,000 photographs of the site as he worked on it. By agreement with the Peruvian government, Bingham sent the 1912 materials back to the collections of the Peabody Museum at Yale. Featured in the Machu Picchu exhibit are over 300 objects of gold, silver, ceramic, bone, and textile from the Peabody collection, just part of the total of 400 objects from various Inca sites. This is the most complete presentation of the Inca culture ever organized, containing the finest surviving examples of Inca art on loan from Peru, Europe, and other major U.S. collections.

With the exhibit’s interactive components, visitors “travel” into the past, first to Machu Picchu with Hiram Bingham in 1911, and then further back to the 15th century when Machu Picchu functioned as an Inca royal estate. There is a panorama of the high altitude cloud forest of Peru, a walk along a replica of an ancient Inca road, and a self-guided interactive tour of the Inca palace complex, including an Inca burial chamber. Inside the house of the Inca king is a life-size mannequin of the king, wearing gold jewelry and an alpaca tunic specifically reproduced for the exhibit by craftsmen in Peru.

The exhibit also draws visitors into the subjects of archaeological interpretation, how scientists explored the riddle of Machu Picchu’s purpose, and why the site was abandoned.

The Incas—A Rich Civilization that Disappeared
The Incas were the Romans of the Andean world—efficient administrators, excellent soldiers, and fine engineers—but like other South American people they had no written language. Their tribal power as an austere mountain clan developed from the 13th century on, and in the 1450s it dramatically increased under emperor Pachacuti (the Alexander the Great of the Incas) and his son Tupac Inca who took a small warlike tribe with loose control over its neighbors and transformed it into the center of a huge, stable empire. Under Pachacuti the Incas exercised control over tribes from the shores of the Pacific to the headwaters of the Amazon, some one-third of the continent. The capital city of Cuzco was built on a monumental scale as a great fortress, from which the emperor as the Sun God could exercise complete control.

A bone shawl pick.

Pachacuti and his son Topa created the amazing network of roads, fortresses and warehouses that kept newly conquered tribes under control. The Inca roads were marvels of engineering, the finest in the world, and crossed more difficult terrain than Roman roads. The “beautiful road” (Capac-ñan) which runs from Cuzco to Quito, 1500 miles, with a uniform width of 25 feet, was built of beautifully dovetailed blocks of stone. Rivulets of water ran beside most of the roads, to quench the thirst of travelers.

Just as the practical Romans derived much of their rich cultural life from Greek and even Egyptian predecessors, the Incas adopted many aspects of their own culture from earlier and artistically rich Andean civilizations. The first ancient civilizations emerged on the coast of Peru about 4,000 years ago. With today’s knowledge, it is absurd to trace Andean civilization only back to the Incas, who for only a brief century or two were able to fuse into one empire a conglomeration of already existing tribes and cultures.

Since no people in South America had yet invented writing, the Inca tradition of keeping records was oral, and professional bards recited the historical events of the past, being careful to revise history by omitting details that predated the coming of the Incas. Still, historians now have the impression that the pragmatic Inca empire at its zenith was like a caring and efficient welfare state, focused on the everyday needs of its diverse populations. One example would be the secret drop-off places in Cuzco, where mothers could leave unwanted newborn babies, knowing they would be cared for by state-run orphanages.

How an Inca society that was so rich and so well advanced in the arts of civilization could suddenly disappear from the world scene between the 1530s and 1570s is a critical question. The ruined Inca buildings, agricultural terraces for farming, and amazing roads of stone remained, but the artifacts and the detailed records of their way of life took a long time to be discovered and analyzed.

“Night fell at noon”: The Spanish Conquest
The central fact governing the disappearance of evidence about the historic Incas was the Spanish Conquest that began in the 1530s. Within a few decades, the daily objects, ancestral materials, and treasures of Inca civilization were methodically destroyed or removed by the Conquistadors. After Francisco Pizarro and his indiscriminate band of soldiers sacked the Inca capital of Cuzco in 1533, the other major Inca cities were soon overcome, and the gold and silver treasures of the empire were collected, melted, and converted into bars, and sent back to the treasury in Spain. “Whatever can be burned, is burned; the rest is broken,” reported one Spanish chronicler. One Inca observation that survived was, “Night fell at noon.”

A 17th-century painting depicting the Spanish conquest of the Incas

Gold hidden in the national vaults was the economic foundation of Medieval Europe, and in the 14th and 15th centuries most of it came from the west coast of Africa. But in the 16th century, South America presented a new stream of wealth to the mother country, Spain. The Conquistadors in the New World not only gathered up all the precious objects, but they continually sought something more, the mythic El Dorado—a hoard of gold at the end of the rainbow—to enrich the Spanish Crown. The conquest of Montezuma and the Aztecs in Mexico by Cortez in 1519 had set an example that a few years later was followed by the Conquistadors in the Andes.

Inca civilization was also ripe for European exploitation in the early 1500s. A smallpox epidemic introduced from Europe had weakened the Andean populations, killing the last major Inca ruler, and there was a civil war between two competing contenders for the throne. It was difficult for Inca clans to unite against a common enemy.

In addition, the Inca made disastrous military mistakes. They did not at first retreat into the mountains to fight the Spaniards, where they would have had an advantage, but used clubs and short swords to fight Conquistadors wearing armor and riding horses (an animal that had never been seen before). The Spanish used deadly steel swords, and fired canons and other firearms. The Incas were slaughtered by the thousands, and their rulers executed in public. Soon all the Inca cities had been looted and ruined, and the ruling class was gone.
Still, there remained a legend, kept alive by the Spanish chroniclers, of a “lost city” in the jungle, bypassed by the conquerors, where Inca cultural materials survived. It was this centuries-old legend that Hiram Bingham, like many others, was ready to believe. Machu Picchu, found to be nearly inaccessible on a mountaintop, seemed to be the perfect lost city.

Later archaeology and research in the 20th century have continued to refine our understanding and theories about the lost Inca culture. Whether Richard L. Burger, director of the Peabody Museum from 1995 through the end of 2002, and his co-curator Lucy C. Salazar, have finally solved the mystery of Machu Picchu, is up to visitors to the exhibit to decide.

Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas was organized by the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. The exhibit is made possible by grants and support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, the Connecticut Humanities Council, The Heritage Mark Foundation, The William Bingham Foundation, Yale University and The Peruvian Connection.

After premiering at Yale University, the exhibit has started a two-year tour of five Museums: the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and Chicago's Field Museum. One other venue is yet to be named.

Back to Contents


Copyright (c) 2003 CARNEGIE magazine. All rights reserved.